The Idol of Christian Impact and Football

In my former post “C.S. Lewis and a theology of Christian Hope“, I had a pretty good comment exchange with my good friend DonBob. DB’s prodding helped me to develop some further thoughts along these lines that I felt were worth posting.

One of my primary intentions here at Sacrosanct Gospel is to attempt to clear away thoughts and ideas that often cloud or adulterate the Gospel of Jesus. I don’t suppose for a moment that I have a corner on this market so I look to friends, authors, thinkers, and theologians to help me along the road. John Piper, Tim Keller, Eugene Peterson and Mark Driscoll are some of my biggest allies in this regard. I also read a few dead guys like Edwards, Calvin, and Lewis. However, as I observe our modern evangelical cultural trends, it seems that some of those who currently defend the Gospel most heartily – namely Piper, Driscoll, and Macarthur – often get a little too zealous in their collective emphasis on missiology.

As a result, I have to be honest in saying that I believe these guys often exhibit an underdeveloped sense of ‘play’ in their Theology. I don’t say this as a ’slam’ against them. I praise God for these guys. So, I point this out more as a gentle critique. Sometimes, in the current evangelical economy, I get the feeling that unless you are ’setting yourself on fire for God’ or ‘burning out for Jesus’, then you are suspect as a second rate believer.

We see this perspective displayed most dramatically in Piper’s book ‘Don’t Waste Your Life’. I get what he’s saying and what he speaking to. I get it. But what I don’t hear him saying is “Hey, It’s good to watch football and be with friends.” I don’t hear him saying that this too can be done as an act of worship that is pleasing to God. Piper’s view seems to paint a picture of worship as something that has an overt and overbearing impact for the Kingdom. On the whole, I think this emphasis can easily foster ‘Impact’ Idolatry – where ‘Impact for God’ is a term used to legitimate the idols of power, reputation, busyness, and workaholism. A good theology of play balances this tendency. We must understand that ‘eating a steak dinner with friends to the glory of God’ can be just as important as ‘preaching the Gospel in New Guinea to the glory of God’. I would love to hear Piper say something like, “Hey guys. Go prepare a steak dinner, invite some friends over, and enjoy a meal together. Heck, watch some football and have a beer. And do that to the Glory of God!”

Somehow, I don’t think Piper would say something like that. I don’t think he gets this aspect. I have often heard Piper say that he “hates the word ‘fun’”. I’ve listened to a number of his sermons. I’ve read almost all of his books, and this aversion against play and recreation seems to ‘eek’ out again and again. In fact, he has often attacked fellow Pastors and Preachers for using humor or being too playful in their sermons. Take a look at the following video and I think you may pick up on what I’m talking about.

Did you sense what I’m driving at? I don’t disagree with a single thing Piper says here, but it’s the feel…it’s the way things are said. You get the feel that there is a false dichotomy being drawn here. Piper seems to place football, sex, money, power, play, toys, and pornography all together in one big lump on one side of the equation, while placing Christ on the other side. The sense is that there is no difference between pornography and football and play. Jesus is on one side. Everything else is on the other side. Piper isn’t directly saying this, but, again, this is the ‘feel’ that one gets.  So, if we’re not careful, we might draw the conclusion that watching a football game is somehow opposed to worship of Christ. He speaks about ‘jostling’ our assurance as if watching a football game should cause us to doubt our salvation. I’m sorry. As much as I love John Piper, I can’t go there. Why are we placing football on the same plane with pornography? I agree, Jesus is opposed to porn. I’m with you. But is he also opposed to football? Is he opposed to sex? Is he opposed to recreation? Is Jesus opposed to fun? Furthermore – and this is where I can get a bit riled up – I don’t believe that simply enjoying life with our family and friends should cause us to doubt whether we are in the faith. That’s just silly. In fact, I don’t believe that we can be a balanced Christian unless we enjoy life with our family and friends…and enjoy it as an act of worship.

Again, I feel that this over emphasis on ‘mission’ and ‘impact’ almost entirely negates a healthy theology of play. Of course, Piper isn’t the only one who is guilty of this. It seems that this ‘impact’ mentality is embedded in almost every corner of evangelicalism. The indictment seems to be, “Unless you do something great for God, then you are not delighting in Him, not glorifying Him, not seeking Him, not savoring Him; and Jesus is less than happy with you until you go out and do something to impact the world.” ‘Impact’ becomes everything.

Over my years in ministry, I have constantly come across college students, seminarians, pastors, and missionaries who are addicted to the glory of ‘impact’. We use Biblical mandates like Matthew 28:19 and Acts 1:8 to justify our thinly veiled lust for significance. We have to stop. If we are really serious about glorifying God, then we must willing to look at our hearts. We must be honest with ourselves. We have to ask ourselves a few questions. Are we ‘impact’ driven people? Do we evangelicals have an underdeveloped theology of play? Do we view “Playing for God’s Glory” as a legitimate act of worship? Or, is play simply seen as a waste of time…as something we do in between the really important stuff?

As we strive to develop a balanced theological perspective, especially in regard to Christian refreshment, imagination, creativity, and play, I feel that we must turn to other theologians for help…people like C.S. Lewis (Surprised by Joy), G.K. Chesterton (Everlasting Man), Peter Kreeft (Heaven the Hearts Deepest Longing), Eugene Peterson (Contemplative Pastor), and Robert K. Johnston (The Christian at Play). I believe that an honest pursuit of balance in this regard is crucial to the proclamation of the Gospel, for the Gospel does not enslave us. It frees us. The Gospel doesn’t drive us, it draws us. It invites us. It sings over us. The Gospel drenches us with a spirit of Sonship that cries out “Abba Father”. The Gospel gives us reason to celebrate and to enjoy life. This gives context to our worship and meaning to our work. And it is this aspect of the Gospel, Christian Play – more than Mission – that creates a hunger and a longing for that day when our joy will most surely be made full.

In the meantime I say we all save up some money and buy John Piper season tickets to cheer on the Minnesota Vikings so he can…Oh wait a minute! Now I get it. Why didn’t I see it before? That’s why Piper hates football! He lives in Minnesota. Perfectly understandable. If I had to cheer for the Vikings, I’d probably hate football too.

18 thoughts on “The Idol of Christian Impact and Football

  1. It’s too bad about Piper. I too think he should loosen up a bit. He is a Cavinist, after all, so what do you expect? Do you know anyone that would have wanted to live in John Calvin’s Geneva?

    I think if Piper were more of a Law/Gospel guy, and less of a Law/Gospel/Law guy, then he would more open to some fun now and then.


  2. Hi Tim,

    I got a little different sense from the snippet of the video I saw. Now, unlike you I have only read a little of Piper, so maybe I don’t have the big picture. It seems to me like Piper is calling for an ordering of priorities. What would you rather do, spend 5 hours on the golf course, or spend an hour in Bible Study. That is not to say that you can’t watch football, (or Hockey in our case), but there needs to balance, with the balance overweighting on the side of Christ.

    For some people, football, or golf is their religion. If it taking the place of true faith, then I have to agree with what Piper is saying.

    Mike Bell


  3. I get that Piper is prioritizing here. He is saying that Jesus should be our utmost concern, our utter joy. I get that. I agree. But I feel that he is, unintentionally, creating a false dichotomy. He’s feeding ‘impact’ idolatry. It’s subtle…that’s why it’s dangerous. All I’m saying in this post is that Piper needs develop another side of his Theology. His mentor, John Edwards, seemed to have the same kind of imbalance…much too serious for his own good. This certainly was a factor in the mess Edwards made out of his first pastorate.

    With so much ‘Piper’ idolatry in Evangelicalism, I feel that it is necessary to point out some areas where his theology to be weak and where we might go to balance out his emphasis. That’s all. I love Piper…I just don’t worship him. He’s not the be all end all.


  4. Pingback: “Heaven is not my Home” - a book review « Sacrosanct Gospel

  5. Fun is fun and all, but life is to short to be concerned with having it. haha

    We could live without football, we could certainly live without tv and video games, but without Christ we do not stand a chance. I say, a fun theology would be neat i suppose, and i admit i have not read much on it if there is literature, but where does Christ practice this and how can we take this idea from the scriptures?

    is there literature i can read about it?


  6. Tim,

    I hear these comments and I am reminded of the words of Jesus where He says that “a house” or “kingdom” “divided against itself will not stand”. Are you and Piper not approaching different audiences with different purposes.

    I believe Piper is remaining faithful to Paul’s admonition to Timothy in 2 Timothy 4: 1-5. Let me say that I have never read one of his books or listened to one of his messages with the exception of the excerpt you have above. With that said, I am not for him or against him. I do however believe that he is faithfully preaching sound doctrine with the purpose of strengthening the Church by encouraging other leaders to do the same.

    I believe that your ministry has been heavily involved in Youth and College and Career. Those ministries are preparatory in nature. They are normally milk and light meat ministries. You are establishing the foundation for the Church in the future.

    At some point your audience will be leading the Church. I hope they have a Piper in their generation to keep them on point. I hope their children have a Tim Melton to come along beside them and encourage them to get connected to Christ.

    I agree that there is a balance that is needed but perspectives have a way of pulling us out of balance. Maybe we should be thankful for the fact that we have balance through the combination of different perspectives and approaches.


  7. I believe you’re right Ken. That’s why I’m offering my perspective…simply attempting to bring balance. At the beginning of the post I affirm Piper as a great ally in the proclamation of the Gospel. I said, “I praise God for these guys. So, I point this (under developed sense of play) out more as a gentle critique.”

    I don’t believe that Piper and I are on two ends of the spectrum, however – Piper for the adults and mature believers and Tim for kids. Tim prepares them and Piper matures them. That is a perspective that I simply can’t agree with. Piper and I are both doing the work of calling, preparing, discipling, and maturing disciples of Christ. Piper certainly reaches a much larger audience but we are both doing the same thing – pastoring people.

    My issue with Piper is that I feel he is maturing believers toward a missiology that discounts a theology of play. A mature disciple of Christ knows when to work AND when to play AND knows how to do both for the Glory of God. Jesus, of course, was our best example of this and we must take his example seriously. There could never be a more serious mission than the one Jesus was called by the Father to accomplish. Yet, he took the time, not only to rebuke Pharisees, but to play with children, go to parties, make wine at weddings, tell stories to crowds that made them laugh, and retreat with his disciples. In fact, he did this so much that he gained a reputation as a wine bibber and a drunkard; a friend of sinners. So, this is the balance that I hope to bring the mission of preaching the Gospel and making disciples. We should go about this great call with the same winsomeness as the Messiah who has called us. And with the confidence that the war has already been won.


  8. I agree that we need to know when to play and when to work. We all need down time for restoration. What we do with that time is really determined by our interests. I lived for a long time believing that it was wrong to do anything “FUN” on the Lord’s Day. CBC contributed largely to that. I used to hate Sundays there. Now I play golf alot of Sundays after church. That is my outlet for enjoyment and exercise which both serve to keep me sane as a broken person in a broken world.

    I don’t believe that we have to preach the gospel to people every time we see them. With that said though I would say that we do need to live out the faith 24 – 7.

    Have you considered inviting Piper to comment on this issue on the blog. It might make for a very interseting conversation.

    I’ve been reading some of the John Eldredge books lately. In “Desire” John talks about our desires being a means by which God directs us to the purpose for which He has created us. He talks about how earlier church leaders sought to kill desire because of the impact that sin can have on it. He goes on to say that we can’t be fully alive if our desire is killed, but that we have to have control of our desires so as to keep them from being compromised by sin. I think that this is what leads to this “serious all the time approach”.

    We have to always be on guard and sometimes we can get so relaxed that we allow the enemy to slip into the camp and reak havoc on our souls. The real challenge is how to relax while remaining on guard.


  9. Regarding the comparison between Piper’s ministry and your ministry, I was not implying that there was any inferiority in your ministry. I was implying that NORMALLY the level of maturity in the the Youth and College/Career groups is less than that of believers who have been in the church for a long time. I hope you did not take offense. I failed in my effort to clearly state my point.

    I was referring to the ministry that you used to be in with Youth. I’m not really sure what the status of your current ministry is. Coming from a man who was an utter failure in Youth Ministry I should say that I respect your ability to minister as effectively as you have for many years. I’m grateful to the Lord for using you the way He has.


  10. Thanks Ken…It really is great hearing from you. I’m also honored to have your comments on the blog. I look forward to getting together with you at some point. When are you guys going to be in Myrtle Beach? Is it next week?


  11. Hey, Tim, its great to be in touch again. Cool to see Ken Sutton’s responses as well. I think Ken is right on about playing golf on Sundays. It was the first day of creation and is the day of recreation.

    John Piper is a passionate Calvinist. So I can agree with him, Tim, DonBob, and Mike Bell (The Eclectic Christian) on certain points. That is the beauty of the Christian Church, unity in diversity.

    I consider myself an orthodox, evangelical, anglican Christian, so I have a wooly, earthy perspective on a lot of stuff other evangelicals put in the sin category. Anglicans are known for their “via media” worldview, or the middle way; there are many Anglo-Catholics who are perhaps too ultramontane and there are low-church Reformed, who are almost Baptist, and a lot in between. I can live with both, because I want a maximalist faith not a minimalist faith, which tends to introduce too much doubt to corrupt the faith. I prefer the high-Church tradition, and tend to hold many views of the Eastern Orthodox, having spent almost a decade with a local Greek parish. Those people know how to have fun. “There is a time for everything under the sun.” It is possible to walk the middle way and still be a committed first-rate disciple of Jesus. Many of my Calvinist friends, who are more Calvinistic, perhaps, than Calvin, can’t see things this way. It’s a free country… and its a wide Kingdom.

    But Piper has written and preached passionately and extensively for years on what he calls “Christian hedonism,” for which I’ve held him in high esteem. So I don’t know why he seems so negative on “fun.” Hedonism, meaning, ‘pleasure’ is within the kingdom of Christ, over which He is King, so why should fun be a bad word? I like fun. I think Jesus did, too, as you pointed out several examples from the Scripture, Tim. He wasn’t the obsessed, psychologically tortured wimp that Nikos Kasantzakis portrayed in “The Last Temptation of Christ.” That was me the first half of my Chsitian life… no thanks to hereditary and environmental depression. Thanks be to God for a holistic approach to Christianity that I’ve learned in the trenches of life, that Bible College attempted to teach but really was too limited in its approach. Still, I enjoyed those days for what they were.

    Besides “fun,” I would think a badder word would be pietism, which I think is what gets in Piper’s way. Pietism is what led to a post Victorian, mamby-pamby, tea-totalling evangelical movement in the US and in GB, but has never really quite died out… sad to say. Sure, there are many benefits that came about coincidentally with this movement (social impacts which we should be thankful for, such as child labor reform). Piper’s in the Baptist General Convention, the church I grew up in, and I can see why he allows that pietist mentality to influence him. But I’m glad he’s there and I’m not, because he does tend to shake things up a bit. If I hadn’t gotten out, I’d probably had been booted out.

    Good stuff! Keep the faith!


  12. P.S. Actually, that was too simplistic to say pietism began post-Victorian… it’s been around since the Pharisees! A great many Eastern monks are pietists, but thankfully not all. I’ve met both pietist and down-to-earth monks.

    P.P.S. Hey, Tim, you mentioned Jonathan Edwards’ mistakes at his first pastorate. Guess where he went from there?

    My ancestor (6th great grandfather on my father’s maternal side) was the missionary John Sergeant, who with teacher Timothy Woodbridge, established the mission at Stockbridge, Mass. among the Mahican natives in the early 18th c. When Sergeant died of TB at a young age, the fiery Jonathan Edwards was assigned to this very mission at Stockbridge where he served as the interim missionary pastor until he was called to his fateful presidency at Princeton.

    You may read my customer review at Amazon for the authoritative book by Patrick Frazier.

    Every time I travel to visit my family in the northeast, I try to make pilgrimage to pay homage to my great-great-great-great-great-great grandfather (whoo! that’s a mouthful) in Stockbridge, Mass., one of the prettiest little towns in the Berkshires. Took my kids there last summer. And yes, we had “FUN”!


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